In just a matter of weeks, HBO will bring millions of subscribers back the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros with the season 5 premiere of Game of Thrones. As a network first, the highly anticipated episode will air in over 170 countries and territories across the globe simultaneously, partly to combat record-setting piracy numbers the show faces and partly to capitalize the buzz surrounding HBO's most popular series ever.
That success is quickly becoming a curse as well as a blessing since this spring's season 5 run means there are currently only plans for two more seasons, with a potential end date set for 2017. The principal actors have been signed for those final seasons, but with the show still growing, and its showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss already deviating further and further from George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fire and ice, the journey doesn't necessarily have to end...
Each milestone episode of Game of Thrones to date has drawn an increasing number viewers, and according to HBO's own press releases this week, Game of Thrones was "the most searched television show worldwide on Google and the #1 most talked about show on Facebook in the U.S." last year. So, how does HBO let something that's so important to their subscriber numbers and financials, and so popular on social media and on the awards circuit, just end like that? HBO programming president Michael Lombardo tells EW:
"This is the hard part of what we do. We started this journey with David and Dan. It’s their vision. Would I love the show to go 10 years as both a fan and a network executive? Absolutely."
As for the shownrunners - who know how Martin ends the story in the unreleased books - Benioff explains that they can see it ending already.
"We see the light at the end of the tunnel. We still have a long way to go and things to figure out, but we definitely know where we’re heading and the major end-beats."
In addition to the Game of Thrones season 5 viral teasers and promotional photos, there have been hints that characters who don't die in the books may die this season in the show. It's part of how the writers are expressing their vision for the story and it's a smart way to prevent diehard fans of the novels from knowing exactly how story threads are going to play out in the television series. It's new for all viewers.
So, what does HBO do when it comes time for season 7? According to Lombardo, they'll definitely be chatting with Benioff and Weiss to see if there's a way to continue it.
"We'll have an honest conversation that explores all possible avenues. If they weren't comfortable going beyond seven seasons, I trust them implicitly and trust that’s the right decision—as horrifying as that is to me. What I’m not going to do is have a show continue past where the creators believe where they feel they've finished with the story."
Even if the showrunners are out after season 7, along with much of the cast (many of whom are landing major film careers thanks to their Game of Thrones TV work), the show doesn't necessarily have to end. A spinoff can be created to carry the brand recognition forward much like AMC launched Better Call Saul after Breaking Bad and how they're already banking heavily on a second series based on The Walking Dead. They could even use this season's flashbacks to setup a spinoff depending on how forward-thinking the showrunners are.
What they won't be doing however, is concluding the show with a feature film in theaters. Lombardo explains that to do such a thing would be "changing the rules" on subscribers who are promised the entire series for being loyal to HBO.
"We want to go out on our absolute highest note. We don’t want people to finally see the end and say, 'Thank god that’s over.' We know basically how many hours are left in this story. We don't want to add 10 hours to that. It’s about finding that sweet spot so it works for us and for HBO and, most of all, it works for the audience."
Very shortly, Game of Thrones is going to surpass the chronology of the A Song of Fire and Ice novels so if there's more story to tell, or more time needed to wrap it up, it's very plausible everyone involved finds a way to extend the conclusion of the main series. That could even mean an extended season 7 order and it being separated into two volumes. We hope that's not the case, but at this point, when we're dying for more Game of Thrones, it's easy to want to stick around in Westeros a little longer.
Game of Thrones season 5 premieres Sunday, April 12 at 9:00pm ET only on HBO.